3D surface anatomy guide could revolutionise medical education

8 Dec 2011

RCSI students Chelsea Garcia and Omar Eldishish at the launch of the world's first 3D surface anatomy guide for medical and physiotherapy students, surgical trainees and artists, which has been developed in Ireland

Set to revolutionise medical education globally, Irish researchers are the creative brains behind the world’s first 3D surface anatomy online guide. By using movement, colour, illustration and 3D technology, the guide will aim to make it possible for anatomists, engineers and artists to teach the body to students from the outside in, all online.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) jointly funded the two-year project, which brought together an innovative collaboration of anatomists, artists and engineers to create the online guide.

The project was a partnership between anatomists Dr Valerie Morris and Prof Clive Lee from RCSI, engineers David Corrigan and Academy Award-winner Anil Kokaram from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and artists Mick O’Dea, Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), and Una Sealy ARHA, from the Royal Hibernian Academy.  

The collaborators combined artistic representation, engineering expertise and anatomical accuracy into a four-hour teaching programme and will shortly be part of the curriculum/training for medical students in Dublin, Bahrain and Kuala Lumpur.

Tangible use for surgical trainees

The guide is being launched at RHA in Dublin today and will soon launched for surgical trainees in RCSI and in the College of Surgeons of east, central and southern Africa. In 2012, it will be used as the basis for teaching anatomy to artists in the RHA school.

So why is the guide being termed a world first?

It shows, in 3D, the motions of muscles and the sites of structures from the surface inwards.  

Speaking from the RHA today, Lee, head of the Department of Anatomy, RCSI, and honorary professor of anatomy at the RHA , described how computer-aided learning is an elegant and cost-effective solution for medical students as it gives them access to a 3D representation of the human body.

He said the 3D guide would help “mitigate” the traditional constraints of medical education, such as a lack of willing live models.

“Medical students are reluctant models, so getting one to take off his shirt to demonstrate the surface anatomy of the heart valves can be a challenge. Yet surface anatomy is the basis of clinical examination and students must learn where to listen to the heart, the markings of the liver, the sites of incisions and the movements of joints – in short the site of everything from the outside in,” said Lee.

3d Surface Anatomy Guide developed in Ireland

RCSI students Anne Ritter and Chinedum Arize at the launch of the world’s first 3D surface anatomy guide in Dublin today

Useful for artists studying the human form for their paintings and sculptures

He also noted how artists don’t always have access to live models, either.

“For artists, a knowledge of the underlying skeletal and muscular structure is fundamental to drawing and painting the figure. This guide allows us to teach these vital lessons in a richer and more engaging manner and on a more frequent basis,” said Lee.

Stereo-3D photography has been around awhile

Stereo-3D or stereoscopic photography was used to create the footage for the project but the technology has been around for a long time, explained Anil Kokaram, associate professor at the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Trinity College Dublin.

For instance, stereoscopic pictures of Dublin can be found in the National Library of Ireland, James Joyce’s old haunt, dating from 1865.

Kokaram said the technology has been through several reincarnations in the past but it is only in the last five years that the technology has caught up with the idea as everyone knows, from the explosion of 3D content on the big screen.
“What is less known is that it is still hard to shoot things in stereo-3D. The crew needs to work with two cameras mechanically and electronically coupled to each other. Quite aside from the physical problems of manipulating the camera rig, it turns out that the camera sensors can never be the same. This is bad for stereo-3D viewing and tends to make people feel ill. The engineering challenges centre on fixing the pictures in post-production using signal processing algorithms designed by the Sigmedia group at Trinity,” said Kokaram. 

The 3D surface anatomy guide in action, showing an oblique fissure

The 3D surface anatomy guide in action, showing an oblique fissure

Pooling of creative minds

Kokaram and Lee had previously worked together on an online Dissection Guide, and applied to SFI for a grant to extend this to surface anatomy and utilise stereo-3D technology. The grant application was successful and engineer David Corrigan from TCD and medical doctor Valerie Morris from RCSI came on board to form a team to script, shoot and edit the guide.  

Mick O’Dea made the RHA studios available for the shoot and, together with Una Sealy, joined in for the editing process to ensure that the guide would be applicable to artists, as well as to medical and physiotherapy students and surgical trainees.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic